Faithless Fears

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I’ve watched friends go down dark corridors of fear and suspicion. You likely know people like this as well. I don’t need to talk about the issues and have no interest in the arguments. I’ve seen them all. And weighed them, as likely you have. I wonder, though, why some go down these dark corridors.

I’ve been thinking about the fear and suspicion that seems to run through many narratives. Now, I don’t absolutely dismiss fear and suspicion. Every time I open email or hear the phone ring, I exercise a certain amount of suspicion. When someone asks me to “verify” my account I am suspicious. When someone calls demanding payment for a tax bill via a gift card, I’m suspicious. While I am not afraid to die, I have a healthy respect for COVID, having known friends who died or got very sick from the virus. Insofar as I can avoid it, I don’t want to find out which side of the probabilities I would end up on.

Andy Crouch, in a book called Culture-Making makes a distinction between gestures and postures. Gestures are situationally determined. Postures are hardened, fixed ways of carrying ourselves. In a fallen world, suspicion and fear are warranted gestures in particular situations. Being suspicious of a telemarketer makes sense. Being suspicious of friends and associates, people of a certain descent or political affiliation, just because of that origin or affiliation suggests a gesture becoming a posture.

Some signs of a fearful or suspicious outlook becoming a posture:

  • You spend significant amounts of your time online surfing websites providing information confirming your suspicions. Then you re-post them to your “friends.”
  • You have limited your news sources in the same way, dismissing any differing accounts, no matter the reputability of the news organization as “fake.”
  • Your conversations have increasingly focused on the things about which you are suspicious.
  • You notice that many of your friends, apart from those sharing the same suspicions, are avoiding you or try to get out of conversations with you as soon as they can.

Some of us by disposition or life experience may be more prone to hardening into postures of fear and suspicion. Perhaps the best thing we might do is suspect ourselves more and others less in these cases. And get help!

The truth is we were not made for this. We were made for love and trust, and fear and suspicion are a distortion, a twisting of the good intent of God. In the Genesis account God places the man and woman in a garden that provides for their every need. Amid all this abundance, God has forbidden eating from a single tree. Why would God do this? Most theologians think that this one prohibition made loving and trusting God a choice, and thus meaningful. If there were no other choice but to love and trust God, what would these words mean?

It is this trust that the serpent attacked (by the way, never trust a talking serpent!). The serpent asks, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” What’s going on here? In addition to distorting the truth (it was one tree, not any tree) the serpent’s question is designed to cast doubt on God, to undermine trust, and ultimately their relation of love. It insinuates the suspicion that God is not really good, and not to be trusted. Then the serpent says, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This deepens the suspicion. God is holding them back. Even though they already are in the image of God, the serpent suggests God doesn’t want them to be like him.

What it comes down to is that God made us to love and trust and enjoy God forever–and each other. When the couple give in to their suspicions, it goes wrong all around. Suspicion is not of God. We were made to live in a posture of love and trust. The apostle Paul extends this to our relationships with each other: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). This does not mean in a fallen world that we close our eyes to evil. But our default is a focus on truth rather than one on evil. John the apostle speaks about how “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). For lovers of God and followers of Christ, our default posture is one of love and trust, not fear and suspicion.

This does not mean people will not betray our trust. Even Jesus was betrayed. But his last act with Judas was to offer him food, a mark of honor and affection. Far more often, I find that when we believe the best of others, many try to live up to that belief. Flowing from this, those whose narrative is one of fear and suspicion send up red flags for me, no matter what they are purporting. I’m not going to live that way. That’s not what we’re made for.

The title for this post comes from a phrase in a prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019):

FOR TRUSTFULNESS IN TIMES OF WORRY AND ANXIETY

Most loving Father, you will us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on the One who cares for us. Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested unto us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is where I want to live, as long as I live, in the place of “trustfulness,” “in the light of that love which is immortal.”


Review: Anna Karenina

anna-karenina

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). New York: Penguin, 2000.

Summary: The classic work exploring the illicit loves and lives of Russian nobility against the backdrop of nineteenth century Russian class struggles and philosophical speculation.

For those looking for a “Cliff Notes” of this classic work, this is not it. Rather, I’m going to share some of my impressions on re-reading this work forty-some years after I first tried to read it in high school. I also can’t speak to the translation, except to say that the work reads easily and the dialogue does not seem stilted, as you find in some translations. Overall, it has been broadly praised.

The novel is kind of like a huge landscape painting with figures in the foreground against a vast panorama. What we have in that foreground are seven people in three sets of relationships against the social, class, and religious backdrop of nineteenth century Russia. It seems to me that in this novel, Tolstoy tries to address himself to all of these, which helps explain its length.

Of course there are the love affairs. We have the love grown cold between Anna and her husband, making her vulnerable to the affections of Count Vronsky, who is unwilling to content himself with a casual dalliance, but makes an all-out assault on Anna’s heart, with all the drama and tragedy that you might expect from such an act. One wishes that Anna’s husband would have challenged Vronsky to a duel (and we get the feeling Anna wishes it early on as well, as a sign that he really cares). Instead, he tries first to get her to confine her relationship to a conventional affair on the quiet. But neither Anna nor Vronsky can do this, and a bastard child makes this virtually impossible. The book chronicles their attempt to make an illicit love work, even though cut by society, and the struggle Anna increasingly faces as Vronsky also appears to cool in his ardor.

At the other end, we have Kitty and Levin who take half the novel to finally get together, and most of the remainder to really believe and settle with the incredible fact that they really and truly love each other. TV dramas that draw out love affairs have nothing on Tolstoy. We agonize to see them get together, and then delight to see a love that matures into a fecund relationship of child-bearing, homestead, and providing shelter for those not-so-fortunates around them.

Finally, there are Dolly and Stiva, who represent the hypocrisies and compromises that Russian society was willing to tolerate. Stiva likes the ladies, but not like Vronsky. He dabbles in affairs, and Dolly, after pardoning one of these, accepts that this is his character, and as long as he acts discretely and provides a modicum of affection, she looks, sadly at times, the other way.

We see the double standards between men and women that prevail in so many societies. We have men who are loving husbands, philanderers, passionate lovers, and cold-hearted, but none really pays for the kind of person they are. It cannot be so with Anna, who sadly, simply wants to be loved enduringly. For a woman to seek this, when a marriage has turned cold and formal, there was little alternative and less hope. And yet she risks all on her only chance.

Behind the foreground, Tolstoy explores the great questions of the day, giving us a panoramic view of Russian society, from relations between landed gentry and their workers to the philosophical speculations that shaped late nineteenth century Russia informed by an increasingly materialistic vision of the world in which cold science overthrew the structures and worldview of the church for many. At points, this may grow tiresome for some of us as we overhear lengthy disquisitions on these matters at various points. Yet Tolstoy, through the eyes of Levin shows us the hollowness of this all, the chattering intelligentsia flitting from one cause or latest idea to another. Perhaps the most revealing section is when Levin has to spend time in Moscow, participating in a series of these empty conversations, with people living above their means, and off the labors of the people. Meanwhile, Levin finds himself in an existential search for meaning as he witnesses the death of his brother, puzzles over the joy he finds in his work, and finds himself praying in the midst of his wife’s labor agonies.

Anna and Levin. Two kinds of life. One that is destroyed by a hollow and hypocritical Russian society. One that finds redemption in spite of it. That, for me, sums up Anna Karenina.

Going Deeper: One

5iRrkKEoTOne of our deepest human longings is for intimacy. We hope to find it in marriage. Perhaps we have found it with a friend or group of friends. We long for it in various communities of which we are a part, including our church communities. We may even long for this with God but not be sure whether such closeness is actually possible. And when we find that intimacy, we often describe it using the language of one–the two become one, being of one mind and heart, being at one with each other, oneness with God. It is the oneness not of losing one’s sense of self but of knowing and being known.

This past Sunday, our Pastor Rich preached on John 17:1-26. There was one section of this which yielded an insight I’ve wanted to go deeper into this week, found in verses 20-23:

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

I’ve often focused on John 13:35 that says,  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What I’ve paid less attention to is that our ability to love for each other, to be one with each other is rooted in a deeper oneness. Jesus prays that we might share in the oneness he has with the Father, and it is by this that we are also at one with our fellow Christians. Rich talked about this incredible thing that we’ve been brought into the life of loving oneness between the Father and Son and that our oneness with each other flows out of this oneness. Intimacy with Jesus is the fuel for intimacy with each other.

The challenge for me is that I try to do the “oneness thing” on my own strength and what these verses say is that my oneness with my community in Christ comes from being in Christ who is in the Father. The best way I can nurture “the beloved community” with God’s people is to know and accept and embrace my belovedness. Because of Jesus, God is for me. Because of Jesus God loves me in spite of all my faults. God loves me just because He does, and invites me to be as close to him as Jesus and the Father have been forever.

Because this is so, I don’t have to change the things I don’t like in others to be one in Christ with them, or conform to the expectations of others. We simply have to love each other just because. I’ve found myself loving people I didn’t like or wouldn’t have chosen to hang around with. I’ve found myself loving people I disagreed with.

Rich talked about the beautiful thing that happens when we are one with God and each others in these ways–“more and more people, as they see our unity, are drawn into the divine community that we ourselves are a part of. ”

One of the things I love about our church is that it is this crazy place where people who otherwise would not be in each other’s lives are learning to love each other and anyone else who walks in the door in practical and life-giving ways. We don’t do it perfectly, at least I don’t. But we don’t give up. That is the power of One!

Review: Christ-Shaped Character

Christ Shaped CharacterChrist-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

As a teenage follower of Jesus, I often agonized as I considered the high ideals of the Christian faith and the reality of my often-misbegotten attempts to follow Christ. I despaired with how far I fell short, and it was only gradually that I began to understand that, nevertheless, Christ had chosen me to be his and that the formation of my character was something to which he was deeply committed and would work out through the journey of a lifetime.

In this book, Helen Cepero believes that the three great virtues of love, faith, and hope of which Paul speaks provide that path along which we might walk by which Christ forms us both in who we truly are and as reflections of his own character. The table of contents for this book might be helpful for prospective readers to see how Cepero unfolds this:

Introduction
Part I: Choosing Love
1. Choosing Life—Living as God’s Beloved
2. Compassionate Hospitality—Choosing the Other
3. Forgiving as We Are Forgiven—Loving the Unlovable
Part II: Choosing Faith
4. Following Jesus—Learning the Language of Desire
5. Embracing Vulnerability—Finding Strength in Weakness
6. Living with Integrity—Sustaining a Life of Commitment
Part III: Choosing Hope
7. Paying Attention—Watching for God
8. Seeing Blessing—Living into Possibility
9. Trusting in Christ—Improvising a Life
Appendix 1: Journeying Together Along the Pathway of Love, Faith and Hope
Appendix 2: Bibliography
Notes

Each chapter begins with a personal story related to the chapter theme, followed by a “taking a closer look” section in which she invites the reader into a journalling exercise, a prayer practice that relates to the theme, a closing discussion of what it means to chose to embrace this aspect of love, faith, and hope and some prompts for further reflection around listening to our own stories, to the story of scripture, and to the continuing story of love, faith or hope. The book concludes with an appendix giving ideas for group discussion of the book and an extensive bibliography of further readings around love, faith, and hope.

Cepero’s personal stories were what engaged me the most and they reflected her own journey along the path she commends for us. They were not self-indulgent reflections but rather windows onto the choices into which she believes each of us are invited. For example, the chapter on embracing vulnerability describes her own desperate vulnerability when she belatedly brings her desperately ill, weeks-old child to an emergency room, facing her own failure as a mother by surrendering her son to those who might better care for him. She then leads us into seeing how the embrace of our vulnerability is the doorway into knowing the compassion of God for us in our weakness.

In a later chapter, she begins with the story of lying in a hospital bed after one of many surgeries to correct a hip dysplasia. She describes the visit of a pastor who sees her not as physically damaged but as intellectually curious. When others bring her stuffed toys, he brings her books and blesses an intellectual and spiritual curiosity that led into Cepero’s life calling. She uses this to speak of the power of blessing another and embracing that blessing of hope in one’s life.

I am thankful for the unnamed pastor in this story. I had the privilege of working alongside Helen Cepero at a conference for graduate students and faculty in 2002. Her insight and formational pastoral care toward participants in the track we were working in was a gift to us all, a blessing. I came to know her as someone authentically living into the journey she describes and maps for us in the pages of this book. If you’ve struggled, like me, with the disparity between your life and your sense of the Christ-shaped life, I would warmly commend this book.

Love and Lostness

The parable of the prodigal in Luke 15:11-32 is among the most famous Jesus told. Rembrandt did a famous painting of this story that has moved many. Yet to read the parable is always unsettling. I wonder why on earth a father would give half his estate to a son he knows is planning to squander it? That just does not seem like good parenting. It also doesn’t seem fair that this son receives such a lavish welcome on his return without even having to grovel! At least a part of me is with that older brother in pitching a fit and staying away from the party.

One of the insights from our pastor’s message this past Sunday that really helps me is to see how both of the sons are lost. What they share in common is that both are lost in selfishness. In different ways, each is a prisoner of his own self-absorption. They are different only in the way they express it, which might help explain why the older brother is upset. Down deep, I suspect the older brother was confronting the reality of his own selfishness in that of his brother, but didn’t want to see it.

Rembrandts-The-Return-of-the-Prodigal-Son1

Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son

Both brothers are absorbed in themselves to the exclusion of any concern for either their father or their other brother and for the future of their family. The younger brother essentially wishes his father dead and wants the present value of his inheritance now, not willing to share in his older brother’s labors that might have enhanced it. All he cares for it seems is maximizing his pleasure in the moment. Even his approach to his father, as repentant as it is, masks a shrewd appraisal that he might do better as a servant in his father’s home than he is feeding the pigs.

The older brother is lost in self absorption as well. He is absorbed in his personal rectitude and his resentment of the younger brother. Seeing his father’s distress, he makes no effort to find his younger brother. And when the younger brother finds his way home, he seethes in anger both against his brother and his father for not throwing him a feast, when he could have had this at any time!

There are so many ways I can be lost to the captivity of selfishness! There are so many ways I create a cosmos that revolves around closing myself off to God and others! In the end we dehumanize ourselves, whether in unrestrained hedonism or an ugly self-righteousness that is both angry and envious toward those who don’t match our personal rectitude. I vacillate between “I want what’s mine!” and cries of “It’s not fair!”

Rich pointed out that it is easy in this story to try to identify which brother we are most like. But identifying the kind of selfish we are can do little to liberate us from being lost in selfishness. The only thing left for us is to stop focusing on ourselves and rather on the Father who is truly extravagant in love. Both sons lived in a “zero sum game” world. By contrast, the Father is one who is extravagant in love, who always has enough to go around and who would much rather throw parties for those liberated from lostness than leave either son on the outside.

I’m struck that in Christmas, we celebrate this extravagant, prodigal love. The birth of Jesus reflects this collusion of Father and Son to rescue us in all the ways we are lost in self-absorption. Jesus becomes the truly loving and righteous Elder Brother and Father’s Son who rejoices not in condemning people in their failure but in finding lost people and restoring them to the Father.

Christmas is rightly a time of parties. It rightly reflects the parties of heaven over the lost who are found by the Savior whose birth we celebrate. The question for each of us is will we turn from our own forms of self-absorption to join the Father’s party or will we remain on the outside, a party of one in a cosmos centered around self?

[This post also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog for this week.]

Review: Works of Love

Works of Love
Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Works of Love is a searching exploration of the distinctive and demanding character of Christian love. It is not a “feel good” book but one that might leave you wondering whether you really have loved at all, or loved well.

Kierkegaard begins with the paradox of love’s character as both hidden and yet bearing fruit in works of love. He then explores the great command to love neighbor as oneself. He plumbs the challenges of loving a neighbor in all the ways we love ourselves, and the fact that it is the neighbor we are to love, literally anyone, and not just the friend or the lover.

He then considers how love is the fulfillment of the law, seen most fully in how Christ fulfilled the law. The law is always indeterminate–we can never know if we’ve met all its demands, but if we love as Christ, we can be sure of this. He also introduces here an idea also found in Bonhoeffer that God is the middle term between us and the person we love. We love others in God and to God. And so also, this is how we love with a clear conscience. We first are transparent with God, and so then with the neighbor we love.

Perhaps even more challenging is to love those we see. We are not to look for those who are lovable but to love those in our sight apart from anything “deserving in them”. But it doesn’t stop there. Kierkegaard’s chapter on the debt of love argues that this is a debt that is never discharged toward another person as long as we live. We can never say we have loved “enough”.

He turns to 1 Corinthians 13 and takes this phrase by phrase. He talks about love building up and, in this, love presupposes the love of the other, that is we upbuild others by presupposing the best in them. Love believes all things, that is it believes, and persists in believing the best of others. It isn’t self protective and thus never truly deceived. Similarly, love hopes all things, is always hopeful of the good in another. Love never seeks its own because there is no “mine” in love. Love hides a multiplicity of sins because this is not what it is looking for, and even when this is unavoidable responds in forgiveness. Love abides and never knows the breaking of a relationship because love keeps loving.

His concluding chapters explore the character of mercy, the nature of reconciliation, and something I’ve never seen before, an exploration of love in the remembering of the dead, a love that cannot be reciprocated and is therefore the freest love. His concluding chapter truly sums everything up in the idea of “like unto like”. We love and we believe we are loved, we forgive (or not) as we believe we are forgiven. We either live in a world of judgment where we judge others and live under the fearsome judgment of God, or we believe the God of love and forgiveness in Christ and live in that love and forgiveness toward others. Hence, the works of love really are an expression of faith.

If this summary of the book seems a bit ‘dense’ or even perplexing, this probably reflects the book’s character. Kierkegard leaves no stone unturned in his exploration of love. This is a book to be read slowly and perhaps repeatedly and only if one is willing to wrestle with the uncomfortable challenge of what it truly means to practice Christian love. Perhaps this is implicit in Kierkegaard but all this is fact an impossibility apart from Christ’s indwelling fullness. This isn’t simply a more demanding ethic, but one that leads us first to repentance of how poorly we have loved and casts us back onto the empowering presence of God’s Spirit. In every sense then, this is a hard book, but because of that, all the more worthwhile.

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Review: Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity

Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity by Gordon T. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book might change your thinking about “sainthood”. Sometimes, we conceive saints as these unworldly, serious, ascetic, and somewhat odd creatures. Gordon Smith would propose instead that being a saint is something to which all of us are called and what this means is growth into Christian maturity–a kind of perfection of holiness that isn’t perfectionism but rather a kind of completeness or wholeness of life.

This is especially important for many evangelicals, who may excel at seeing people come to faith but have little idea of how to direct them into becoming holy (or sanctified, a word drawn from the same root as saint–in other words, saintified). Most often, since we do the crisis experience of conversion so well, we simply propose additional crisis experiences. Smith proposes a different route.

Smith begins with what he sees as the essence of the Christian life, which is union with Christ. To be in Christ is to be united with Christ through his Spirit, which is a profoundly humbling thing that promotes our dependence upon Christ, our focus on the person and work of Christ, and our Spirit-enabled obedience of faith. In a later appendix, Smith applies this to the scholarly life, which is a life grounded in prayerful dependence upon Christ and illumined by Christ.

Smith then talks about four expressions of holiness that might surprise you. The first of these is wisdom, the practical understanding and knowledge of how to live well in the fear of the Lord. This can be expressed as having the mind of Christ, of seeing all of life through the lenses of creation, fall, and Christ’s redemptive work. Wisdom that understands the cross understands suffering in light of the cross.

The second expression of holiness is vocational holiness. By this, Smith means a life of good work that flows out of a sense of being called both into union with Christ, and into the world. Vocational holiness understands our agency in the world as fallen but redeemed image-bearers of God. It involves self-understanding of our temperament, skills, gifts and situation and lives in hopeful realism throughout the seasons of one’s life.

The third expression of holiness is social holiness expressed in our love for others in the communities to which we are called. This will find expression in radical hospitality where we welcome each other as we have been welcomed in Christ, forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, and in generous service to others. All of these are formed in the worship, teaching, and witness of our churches.

Finally, and surprisingly, Smith speaks of joyful holiness–the ordering of our emotional lives around our hope in Christ. He sees these particularly worked out in the practices of worship, friendship, and sabbath. This last is especially radical because in sabbath, we trust that while we must rest God doesn’t and his work is prior to and over ours.

The book concludes with two extended appendices, one addressed to applying these truths to the life of the church, and the other to the life of the academy, particularly, but not exclusively the Christian university and seminary.

I came away from this book with a different rubric for thinking about Christian maturity that is neither obsessed with sin nor activity, but rather in the kind of person we become in union with Christ–wise, called, loving, and joyful. That is a kind of “sainthood” that seems quite attractive, and one to which all, and not simply some “spiritual elite”, might aspire.

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Be Not Afraid — Seriously?

Our pastor explored something in his sermon on Sunday that I think many of us struggle with and that is the clash between statements like “be anxious for nothing” or “be not afraid” and the worries, anxieties, and fear that dog our steps and often feel hard to shake off. Sometimes the words “be not afraid” sound a bit to us like “don’t think of pink elephants”. Once there, it is just not easy either to shake those visions of pink elephants dancing in our heads or those worries nipping at our heels.

One of the most striking things about most of the “be not afraids” of scripture is that they are spoken by God, or those speaking for God. And this gives me a clue to this thing of dealing with fear that has been of great help to me. “Be not afraid” is not an order to “think positively” or to “make a positive confession” but rather they are God’s invitation to a relationship of trust. God’s invitation is not to try to suppress our worries by our own efforts but to trust them to his care.

I think I first understood this deeply when I was worrying about money a number of years ago. Things were often tight when I was growing up and there was at least once instance where dad was between jobs. I actually think my parents handled this pretty well, but the fear of not having enough carried into my adulthood. Strange then that my chosen profession involved depending on donations of others to pay the salary for the work I do. We were going through a patch where those donations were down and I was facing possible salary reductions, and perhaps worse, not being able to meet our obligations. At least that was what I was afraid of

My strategy for dealing with fear was a combination of worrisome talk that had to be tiring for my wife (who was far more hopeful about things) and “doubling down”, particular in efforts to raise the requisite funds. I even asked God to help me as I met donors and to supply my needs. I did everything except to go to my heavenly Father and say, “Daddy, I’m really scared of not being able to provide for my family and to meet my debts.” I continued coping with these pressures like this until I was doing a Bible study written by Dave Ivaska, a colleague, titled Be Not Afraid. There was a question at one point that asked very simply, “what are you afraid of?” For the first time, I named this fear to God instead of trying to deal with it or even asking God to deal with the stuff that caused me to be afraid.

I can’t say that my fear magically disappeared. But in naming my fear to God and allowing God into that fearful space, the fear began shrinking and lost its hold in my life as I became aware that God didn’t just love me in an abstract sense–God loved me at the place of my fear. Rich talked about this idea that there is no fear in love because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

I’m still on this journey. Other fears about loss are becoming real for the first time. There are the fears of significant loss of physical or mental abilities that come as I notice bodily changes or take longer to remember a name or grope for the right word. There is the kind of loss of recognizing you are far from indispensable and wondering as you hand off to rising leaders whether there is anything left that you can contribute, or what all you did meant when much of it is changed!

Rich talked about how we often experience the love of God that drives out these fears through people in community. I need that! It is still tempting for me to just put on my game face and double down. That strategy never worked very well and I have less energy or time for it now. Perhaps it is in becoming a safe place to name and shed our fears that we become “the beloved community.” That’s the safe place we have with the God who says, “be not afraid.”

This post also appears at my church’s Going Deeper blog.

Love That Lasts

We celebrated Valentine’s Day over lunch today, since I’ll be working tonight. It included a stop at Half Price Books where my wife found a missing volume for a cook book series she collects. Made her day! (By the way, it is Booklovers Weekend and they are giving 20% discounts on everything if you receive or sign up for their emails).

This was our 36th Valentine’s Day, so I thought I might reflect on how we’ve made it this far in married life and can still say we are in love. Not that every moment has  been lovey-dovey. Ruth Graham, the now deceased wife of Billy Graham was once asked if she’d ever contemplated divorce. Her reply was something to the effect of: divorce never, murder frequently! My wife would probably be justified in similar thoughts! So how did love last for us?

Love image

1. We were blessed with good role models. Our parents on both sides had “until death do you part” marriages. They weren’t perfect and we watched them work, however imperfectly, through the tough spots. Between my siblings and me, we have over 100 years of marriage. Our parents must have done something right. At very least, they demonstrated what could happen when you decided that quitting wasn’t an option.

2. We kiss first thing every morning and try to go to bed every night without unresolved issues between us. The apostle Paul wrote, “be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your anger.” My wife says she is not passive-aggressive, but rather just aggressive! That’s been good for me–in my family we tended to keep things a bit more bottled up and then just exploded. So we do get angry sometimes, and have to work to hear each other out. I’ve spoken the words, “I’m sorry, I was wrong” on many occasions. We try to get to the place where the last thing we do is kiss (and mean it) at night.

3. We’ve sought to guard our hearts in the sense of not giving to another the affections that belong only to our spouse. We’ve seen love grow cold between spouses and also seen affairs spring up when an attraction becomes a flirtation then becomes an infatuation, and finally an affair. Speaking and showing love daily helps stir up the fires. Setting boundaries with the opposite gender and speaking often in positive terms of our spouses with them helps.

4. Looking back at some of the hard places we’ve gone through, I think of hardships as God’s forge that has made our love deeper and more enduring. Cancer, caring for parents and losing them, and our own experience of parenting from those early sleepless nights through the college years called us to listen, to pray, to serve each other, to recognize and put to death our inherent selfishness.

5. Perhaps at the bottom of all, our marriage has lasted by the grace of God. I think again and again as I witness young couples give their marriage vows of what audacious promises we are making to each other! Perhaps being loved by a God that will not let us go and that went to all lengths to woo us challenges us to cry out for and imitate that kind of love for each other. And perhaps because we know the love of such a God, we don’t look for each other to be “god-like” lovers. That relieves a good deal of pressure!

Last night, we heard an artist, Joe Anastasi, who has painted portraits of the homeless in our city (here is a YouTube where he talks about his work). What was amazing in viewing his paints was how he captured something of the depths and dignity and soul of people we often avert our eyes from. I was reminded again how there are depths and wonders in every human life that it takes a lifetime to discover. One of the wonders of marriage for life is that we have the time to truly explore the depths and wonder of another person, to cherish and nourish and celebrate that with each other through the various seasons of life. I’m so glad to be on that journey with the one I love, and for the grace and protection of God who has given us nearly 36 years so far. Happy Valentines Day, my love!

(For more thoughts on this thing called love, see my post from earlier this week, Love Stories.)

Love Stories

For any of you who have followed me, you have probably figured out that you won’t see many reviews of love stories, and likely none of romance novels.  Between the ads that show up on my Kindle and posts this week (as Valentine’s Day approaches), in places like the New York Times Review of Books and Publishers Weekly, it has come to my awareness that I am definitely out of step with a certain segment of the reading public!

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I can readily hear the women who follow this blog shouting at this point, “it’s because you are a man!” All I can say to that is, “guilty as charged!” Personally, I’d like to think it is because I am living two of the greatest love stories I’ve known–one with my wife of 35 years and one as part of the church as Christ’s betrothed and beloved of God.

That said, on further reflection, I have to say that I enjoy love stories when they are part of bigger stories. Right now I am reading Glorious Waran account of George Custer’s Civil War adventures.  Interspersed with narratives of Custer’s boldness, strategic sense, and courage in battles, we have the adventure of his courtship and marriage of Libbie Bacon. The love story is a welcome respite from the battle scenes and helps me see Custer as more than a one dimensional figure.

Likewise, one of the things I’ve always loved about Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter is that it sets her marriage and deepening love for Nathan Coulter alongside the challenges of rural agriculture, the memories of war, and the obligations of extended family and community.

It was fascinating for me to read Caitlin Flanagan’s review of Daniel Jones Love Illuminated. Jones edits the Modern Love” column for The New York Times. She expresses her surprise at her discovery of a central thread in Jones book:

“We were promised an exploration of life’s most mystifying subject, but instead what we keep coming back to is a study of life’s least mystifying subject: how it might come to pass that two like-minded graduate students in the same creative writing program might fall in love, get married, learn that marriage is not composed of an unfolding series of ever-heightened erotic pleasures, and yet still manage, year after year, to keep their leaky but serviceable vessel out of dry dock.”

Maybe this explains for me why I like the kinds of love narratives I’ve described above. They are situated in the much larger and yet less fantastic context of real lived, human experience. I like the phrase “leaky but serviceable vessel”. Real love wars with our personal selfishness and calls us into self-denying love. It struggles through raising children together, financial tensions, illness of parents or spouse, the tension of the siren call of career and the harder work of going deeper in the encounter with one other. Probably like others on this journey, I have to say it has been only in a small measure what I imagined, and looking back over 35 years, far better than I could ever have hoped.

As I write these words I’m conscious of my single or formerly married friends. I neither want to venture explanations of why one hasn’t yet found the love we’ve lived these many years nor why it hasn’t worked out for another. That would only be to add to the pain. What I would propose instead is that the love stories we read should not be the ones that are anodynes for our pain or fantasies of what we wish we had, but the narratives that set love in the larger context of life, that prepare us to be better lovers wherever God gives us the chance to love.